Author: Greg Egan
Illustrator: David Ho
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Published: October 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy
“The wormhole makes tangible the most basic truths of existence. You cannot see the future. You cannot change the past. All of life consists of running into darkness. This is why I’m here.”
– Greg Egan, “Into Darkness” in The Best of Greg Egan
Science fiction fans will be happy to note that there is no such thing as “the best.” This is the appropriate irony of this collection, as it unwittingly, clumsily, and carefully challenges the idea of an idea of an idea into infinity and beyond any foreseeable, preventable, diagnosable end. Time, existentialism, number theory, artificial intelligence, naturalism, simulated reality, metaphysics, human consciousness, religion (consistently battered, bruised, and bullied into a biased, likeable unlikelihood), quantum mechanics, and the existence of frontiers without the capability of definition, except through jerry-rigged laws and yet-to-be-believed theories in their place and paces, make up these thirty years of hard science fiction. Between the seasoned fact-checkers and mathematical zealots to the lighthearted space opera goers and speculative enthusiasts, there stands a haughty anomalist who comes from the nineteen-nineties (it would be criminal and oxymoronic to call him an Australian science fiction writer at this point) Greg Egan who has a hunch for what his best (so far) is, and what a hunchback he has (or not, since keeping up appearances is not his thing, and neither is Google).
From Subterranean Press, The Best of Greg Egan collects cybernetic think pieces with remarkable haptic situations. His depth of field is diverse and perverse, foreboding and familiar, experimental yet elastic. Although these stories manage a clarity that confounds itself as it grows more curious, a lot is still to be questioned despite the seeming disconnects threaded and plot holes filled. Characters are painfully aware and disturbingly made unaware of their second class citizenship and the capitalist and commercialist gains forced onto them in stories like “Learning to Be Me” and “Closer.” The willful ignorance and digital dire straits following the forgone autonomy for transhumanist robot bodies and plastic replicas, the literal turning over of the human brain and body to technology is all cause for concern, but never in time to admit the mindless reliance placed on these drawn-and-quartered alternatives. Before any digital dust kicks up, there are some novella-length companion pieces that bid for the noninvasive engineering of the human spirit. “Oracle” and “Singleton” share a skewed timeline between worlds not too foreign from one another that both raise the question posed by Alan Turing of whether or not a computer can think. That and if a computer can impersonate human behavior, social cues, and desires that may or may not be able to alter the visible and invisible universe, like in transcendental and nature-bending tales, “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” and “Chaff” or “Luminous” and “Dark Integers.”
A few one-off stories also hold their own merit in this short story collection, bringing a singular, personal lens to the unnatural made natural. From a man’s brain being kept alive via blood from his wife’s uterine walls to the cultish outbreak of a dermatological disease worse than leprosy that burns the underside of the entire body’s skin, to the acts of faith put to work for an ocean-cultured boy placed on dry land and a chemical engineer and Iranian, Muslim girl inventing a breakthrough her country never knew it could have, it is etymologically more than possible Egan is a lionized substrate of a tin man made human rather the opposite way around. The guesswork is cleaned and polished yet still gets its nose gritted by the grindstone. The outlandishly unorthodox remedies to change the fallible into the infallible, the overwhelming indecision and limitations of physicality are these stories bread and butter or quarks and neutrinos. Whether he be man, machine, both, or none of the above, readers can be certain, and linguists can determine, that Egan is not without the remnant of a heart.